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Rekindling community’s soul through memories

Photo restoration at Hazel V. Parker Playground

Charlestonians are “come yahs” or “bun yahs.” However, some “bun yahs” are Hazel Parker children and others are the post-Hazel children. The Hazel era was like no other, so there was no choice about what to do with the many old photos taken before and during her tenure that were long in storage. But let’s start with the lady herself. For those who grew up on the old East Bay Playground, the melodious sound of the name “Hazel Parker” quickly inspires a smile. Hazel was so beloved that that Charleston City Council officially named the facility the Hazel V. Parker Playground in 1977.

She was hired as recreation supervisor at the playground in 1942, the year after the United States entered World War Two. When she retired in 1988, Hazel was keeping an eye on the third and fourth generation of children at the playground named in her honor. She died in 2011 at age 88.

Many who grew up with Hazel learned a few years ago about the fate of the famous six decades of photographs that once lined the walls of the playground. For many decades, youngsters stood near those very walls the Wednesday before Thanksgiving or on Valentine’s Day to peer into the crowd and muster the courage to ask someone to dance. Others might have been pondering if they thought it a good idea to send a message through a friend that so-and-so lassie would really like it if Mr. Scaredy Pants would ask her to dance. This was big stuff for youngsters, often resulting in crushes and broken hearts.

“Hazel’s children” also remember their first Bear Hug or Shag on these floors; thanks to a new photo restoration and display project, when they visit the playground today, time races as the adults gaze into the memories hanging on the walls. As a result of the project, they are transported to their “wonder years.” These are photos of sports teams and leaders of youth councils and whatever it was that Hazel cooked up that deserved some recognition and made ordinary children feel special. Thousands of local faces are either on the walls or in the boxes “sitting on ready” to be framed.

After Hurricane Hugo damaged the building in 1989, these photos were stored in boxes at a city facility. The playground subsequently underwent a lengthy renovation and, at the same time, many schools started athletic teams that assumed the role of sports once played on the grounds of East Bay, in between cobblestones and sea breezes. Playground usage was less than robust — until the last few years.

The now-grown-up “playground children” behind the photo restoration effort would rather not be named. They spoke of common experiences of many children who learned life skills or found a refuge in times of trouble in the halls where Hazel was firmly but lovingly in charge. They raised a total of $9,000 for the first phase, $3,000 of which came from the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, and currently have three walls nearly covered in photographs. Another $4,000 will finish the job.

Sixty friends of Hazel celebrated saving these images — and celebrating the memories therein — on April 26 at a reception at the playground. Event organizers like to remark that the faces of those attending were “full of pure joy.” The volunteers also credit a fellow “playground child,” Charles Ailstock, for helping make this project possible. Ailstock is the owner of Artizom, which has been restoring and framing the photos at a friendly rate.

The goodwill ambassadors of the playground speak glowingly of the support from Sarah Stern, the current program manager of therapeutic recreation and of the Hazel V. Parker Playground. Stern sends out weekly “Hazel’s Happenings” e-blasts to tell about all that the city is offering at the playground; it is no brief read, as the playground is humming with activity these days.

Stern’s success is remarkable and clear when you read about all the events and learn that many (but not all) of the summer camp sessions are already full. A variety of summer specialty camps have openings — some offer soccer development; another offers yoga; yet an additional camp provides ballet and another is focused on teaching manners in a “fun and dynamic way.” Adults can take classes on Pilates, yoga and dive into other fitness topics. These are just samples of what is available at the playground beyond tennis, basketball, dog walking and a ball field ready for kickball, T-ball or baseball.

Hazel would certainly be pleased to see so much buzz at 70 East Bay St. The photo project volunteers would like to see more and more youngsters and adults making this place their community center, a most worthy tradition to continue. To keep the momentum building, readers should consider how they might help finish the photo project. Donations by check should be made out to Artizom and mailed to 1834 Summerville Ave., Building Four, Charleston, S.C. 29205; on the memo line note: Hazel Parker Pictures. Donors may also visit the GoFundMe site via Facebook.

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